The Top 5 Unsung Heroes of Funk Guitar

It’s no secret, I’m addicted to Funk guitar playing. From the minute I heard the power of vamping on one chord and it holding more weight and groove than anything I’d ever felt or heard before, I was hooked. The importance of Funk guitar done right is hugely underestimated in itself, as learning the style WILL make you a better guitar player but most importantly; a better band member. As The Godfather of Funk & Soul said himself - every instrument is a drum and when it comes to Funk, if you haven’t got rhythm, you haven’t got the Funk! The resurgence of Funk guitar is upon us, with the likes of Cory Wong cooking up a new breed of Funk guitar playing for a new generation of guitar players, as well as an OG like Nile Rodgers still keeping the old flames alight. However, there have been some criminally underrated bad-cat players through the ages of the genre and even if you don’t recognise their names; I guarantee you’ve heard their chops. So without further ado, here’s my top 5 underrated funk guitar players of all time.


Jimmy Nolen

Jimmy Nolen was the guitarist for none other than Mr. Dynamite himself, James Brown. Known for his great stab chops, which can be heard on the likes of “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” and “I Got You (I Feel Good), As well as the “chicken scratch” sound which is infamous with songs like “The Payback.” Nolen was an OG of Funk Rhythm playing and a pioneer of lightly pressing and muting the strings with the left hand whilst perfectly executing the rhythmic strumming as close to the bridge as possible for ultimate “stank.” A huge influence on the style that made Nile Rodgers a household name, as well as having being a massive influence on Hip-Hop music; becoming one of the most sampled guitarists of all time.

Jimmy was a bad-cat and a perfect example of what rhythmic guitar playing should be - space and execution.



Jesse Johnson

Jesse Johnson served as guitarist for the legendary Prince (more on Prince later!), performing in groups “The Time” and “Vanity 6”. He contributed to one of the big hits from the “Purple Rain” album, the infamously funky “Jungle Love.” Along with Prince, he was responsible for pioneering the “Minneapolis Sound.” Though, funnily enough was not from Minneapolis and clearly heavily influenced by the mouldings of Prince.

His style is rooted with Blues influences, with shades of Hendrix and Buddy Guy and is also one dangerous soloist (check out his solos and records!). Prince would write and record all of the guitar parts for The Time, cobbling big shoes for Jesse to fill, but he is one of the few guys who could do it with ease and style. Prince allegedly stated he was one of the few guitarists “he could be scared of”.

He also lured Sly Stone to his funky return as the two collaborated on his single “Crazy”. His influence on Hip-Hop and Neo-Soul is also prevalent, having playing on D’Angelo’s last studio album. A master of hypnotic repetition and never playing a note that didn’t need to be there. If you’ve never checked out his work, do it - you’re missing out!



Bruce Conte

Conte was the guitar player for the iconic funk band “Tower Of Power.” His style was so slick and calculated, always cutting through a cooking brass section and an ensemble of rhythmic multitudes. Arguably an R&B fusion player, with his ability to rip-roar his way through a solo, though he always managed to make every lead feel like a rhythm part.

Most importantly however, were Conte’s rhythm guitar skills - the subtle ability to make the part stand out through the rest of the instrumentation and fixate your attention with its mesmerising repetition. Taking note from the work of Mr. Nolen? I think so. Take the classic “What is Hip?” for example and listen to just the guitar part, it instantly wants to make you copy it and pay along.

Bruce also injected a brilliant bounce like quality into his playing - listen to “Only So Much Oil in The Ground” for example, the part almost skips around the song as if being chased by the other instruments; with so much smug-class of knowing it isn’t going to be caught. A master of pushing and pulling the beat. Bruce sadly passed away this year but his legacy lives on, go dive into it.



Steve Cropper

Where do we really start with the one and only Steve Cropper? The man has done and seen it all. Writing songs with Otis Redding? Check. Playing rhythm guitar for the almighty Albert King? Check. A member of the legendary Blues Brothers band? Check. The guy is a musical legend. However, I promise the spectrum of his legacy will go further than you know; with so many well known songs you’ve heard time and time again dripping in Steve’s rhythmic swagger.

His style fuses sweet Soul and R&B flavours whilst melding perfectly with the needs of the song - he always managed to play the “right” part. Whether it be the teasing tension of “Green Onions” or the blissful bound of the ever famous “Soul Man,” Cropper’s playing style always fit the bill and then some. One of my favourite rhythm parts ever is Sam & Dave’s “Soothe Me” - it just showcases how to be funky and almost romantic within the same guitar part.

Cropper is a legend and a stark reminder that funk playing doesn’t have to stick to the confines of any one genre; it can lend from them all!



Prince

Prince Rodgers Nelson. Not only the bender of gender fluidity and sexuality in a decade of rigid conformity but a true Funk gangster. The guy redefined the genre and made it his own! Now, I know what you’re thinking - “Are you talking about the Purple Rain guy who makes weird noises and wears too much make-up, Mitch?” The answer is, yes. Yes I am. When it comes to guitar, Prince was a true virtuoso and above all, always the artist; never overselling his ability. He could melt the face off of most of his 80s contemporaries, he just didn’t need to. However, that’s not the point, we’re here to talking about funk rhythm guitar playing.

Well let’s start with his track “Sexuality.” Prince understood that funk was sexy and you only need one chord to be sexy. In this track he shows that all you need is the self-assured intensity that you can bring to chord, using the tension of a minor 7 and hitting it the same way over and over. Making you yearn for the release of the root note, whilst hitting it on top the the minor 7 voicing every time.

The same thing is prevalent in the outro of “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and conveys everything he stood for as an artist, all through a single note vamp. The guy was a rhythm genius. On top of that, he assembled bands “The Time” and “Vanity 6” to further accommodate his outpouring of mesmerising funk guitar parts.

He took influence from every great funk player, threw it all in a bowl and came out with funkiest punch a guitar player can dream to brew. Understanding fully the importance of repetition, where the part should be and what it should convey - just learn the part to The Time’s “The Stick” and see if you can play it without any deviation, for 8 and a half minutes and still make it funky. The same can be said for a track like “Love 2 the 9s” - pure genius.

His use of Dorian tension was also a genre defining guitar staple, just listen to “Kiss” and you’ll hear what I mean. Prince has over 30 studio albums - providing a wealth of listening beyond the ubiquitous “Purple Rain”. Dig into them, see just how much of bad dude he was and elevate your rhythm guitar playing to crazy heights. Punch a higher floor!



Who are your favourite funk guitar players? Let us know!


Feel like joining Mitch for more funk guitar goodness? Check out his lesson series featuring the top funk guitar riffs of all time!


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